With their buying power hit by the stock market slump or eaten up in mortgage payments, a growing number of mainlanders are watching their pennies like never before. Liang Aimei, taking her laptop computer to be fixed at a shop in Beijing, is one of them. 'If I still earned several thousand yuan a day from my stock investments like in the good old days, I would simply buy a new computer,' the 36-year-old said. Her last batch of stocks was bought in July last year. Since then, the market has fallen 23.5 per cent. 'I took my parents and sisters on a trip before the stock market slumped last year. It was the first time they travelled. I wish I had not done that so I can have more money now,' Liang said. 'I have to change my shopping habits. I used to buy only from street vendors until I earned my first bucket of gold from the stock market. Then I began to shop in department stores. Nowadays, I've returned to the street vendors.' When the nation's economic data for last month is released today, the retail sales figure is unlikely to provide any big surprises. While the economy is set to slow down in the remaining part of the year, few economists expect the retail sector to lose much steam. Even during the financial crisis when exports - the country's major growth contributor - were battered, retail sales held up well, indicating resilient domestic demand. Wage rises, policies to boost rural consumption and low deposit interest rates have encouraged many economists to forecast retail sales to rise about 18 per cent from July last year and a similar pace of growth will be maintained this year. But behind the growth, the real story is the widening wealth gap between the rich and poor. The rich - with the guts, luck, knowledge or inside information to reap from the stock and property market boom in previous years - are getting richer. While the mainland's share market was among the worst performers in the first half and the property market came to a standstill, the rich turned to speculation on wheat, beans, pepper, garlic and other agricultural products as well as buying gold and diamonds. The investments have heated up markets, sent prices soaring and led to higher retail sales. The poor and middle class, meanwhile, are hurting and having to turn to lower-end products or seeking cheaper channels to buy everyday goods. When night falls, street vendors across the city make their presence felt in many residential and office areas, selling clothes, accessories, toys and stationery. For them, business has been good. Zou Fan, a 28-year-old office worker, said she had been buying from street vendors for months. 'An ordinary-looking skirt could cost more than 600 yuan (HK$688) in a department store. It is a lot of money compared with my 3,500 yuan monthly salary,' she said. 'Daily necessities take up a bigger portion of my spending after food prices increased. I can buy almost everything for less than 100 yuan from the vendors. 'I also rely more on online shops. There is a variety of goods to choose from and the prices are more reasonable than department stores.' Online-shopping turnover almost doubled in the first half of this year to 103 billion yuan from a year earlier, according to a report from the China e-Business Research Centre. The number of online shoppers topped 130 million, nine million more than at the end of last year, the report said. Major department store operators say they have not seen any weakening of demand, with last month's same-store sales growth running close to June's pace in the high teens. Jewellery sales surged 56 per cent year on year in June, the quickest pace this year. Apparel sales rose 28 per cent while cosmetics were up 17 per cent. Vehicle sales growth slowed, but remained strong with a 28 per cent rise in June. Sales last year were boosted by stimulus policies. Economists said retail sales in general would remain robust this year. 'Consumption trends have remained strong in July,' Goldman Sachs analysts said in a research note. 'June income tax data shows that wage growth is still strong, growing 18 per cent year on year ... we think the fundamental backdrop of consumption remains healthy.' Wang Xiaolu, of the National Economic Research Institute, said disposable income was 23.2 trillion yuan in 2008 - 9.3 trillion yuan or 67 per cent higher than the data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics, indicating a large portion of the consumption was supported by 'invisible income' - accessible only to the rich and the powerful.